Interview and transcript © 1990 by Kay Reese & Mimi Leipzig. ASMP staff edited the transcript for online presentation.
ASMP: How did you first come to the ASMP?
Brooks: I don’t know how I knew about it, maybe through Arthur Rothstein (bio), maybe not. I knew that, for some time before I joined it, I was very ambivalent about joining it. I don’t know whether it was because I didn’t feel professional enough early on. I’m not much of a joiner anyhow, and I didn’t get around to joining until, as I remember, after I joined the Look magazine staff. That was in 1951.
I think I joined at that point because I felt that, the way the magazine was set up, photographers didn’t really have any rights to speak of. And there was something in the back of my head that made me feel that maybe through ASMP, the staff photographer’s lot could be improved. That’s sort of my recollection, because I know I toyed with it and rejected it for several years, until finally I decided to join.
“There were some loudmouths.”
ASMP: I noticed that in the Bulletins they talk about you in 1956.
Brooks: I was asked to run for president along around that time. But I felt it wouldn’t be right because I think there were three women in all of the Society, and it didn’t seem right to me for a woman to be heading up an organization which consisted largely of men. It’s interesting to contemplate that thought at this moment in our history.
Among other things, we worked up the first handbook of pay scale. And I think I have my old booklet that we issued. We were going to research and then continue recording information and send it out to members. I remember we put it into a loose-leaf cover so that we could do that. But that must have been maybe ’53 or ’54, somewhere in there.
ASMP: What was the organization like when you joined?
Brooks: There were some loudmouths.
ASMP: Did you feel any negative attitudes toward women photographers? Did you have any sense of that?
Brooks: I know that there was discrimination, and I know that I was getting less money at Look than the men were.
ASMP: And also within the ASMP?
Brooks: I wouldn’t say so. I have no recollection of anything of that kind, possibly because I was so involved with it.
ASMP: You really were getting less money than the men photographers?
Brooks: Sure. And there were limits as to what women photographers were considered to be capable of covering. There were actual legal limits, like a woman couldn’t get on a submarine, couldn’t photograph on a U.S. Navy vessel. I know that because I was turned down for some coverage there. And generally, the attitude was, “They can do children, education, medicine” — which is what I did a lot of. Once I did a para-rescue story, but that was only because the man who was supposed to do it couldn’t do it. But I wouldn’t say that at ASMP there was any discrimination.
“It put a little spine into photographers”
ASMP: Were you involved in negotiations of any kind?
Brooks: Yes. It would have been in 1955; I had a broken leg, and negotiations were in progress with Life. The picture editor at Life came to my house (I was living at 12th St. in the City at that point) to discuss the negotiations with Life. I don’t think we got very far.
ASMP: What happened?
Brooks: I don’t remember — probably nothing. It took a long time before anything was cracked.
ASMP: But you were involved in other negotiations too at that time, especially if you were vice-president. Did you work on standards? Evidently there was a list of working standards and you must have worked on that.
Brooks: Yes, I remember it was like really butting heads up a stone wall.
ASMP: What were you asking for?
Brooks: A $100-a-day minimum, to start with.
ASMP: Anything with rights?
Brooks: I don’t know that rights came up at that time. It was expenses.
ASMP: Do you think the Society had an impact on the lives of the photographers?
Brooks: I do. For one thing, I think, it did give some confidence. Just the feeling that you weren’t alone helped. And I think it put a little spine into photographers when dealing with editors, so that you would even ask for what you thought was due you.
And it was fun. We used to get together. To get to know photographers, to be talking about the photographic world, to be exchanging technical information, and just to get to know people was very satisfying. I enjoyed that a lot. And in that respect, I was sorry I was missing it when I moved to the country. Also, I was traveling a lot for Look, so the combination of circumstances made my life at ASMP much less active.
“I started off being a dancer”
ASMP: How did you become a photographer?
Brooks: I started off being a dancer, and then I wanted to photograph dance. Then I decided that I didn’t really want to be a dancer, and the question was, what was I going to do with my life?
ASMP: When was this?
Brooks: This was when I got back from Minnesota. I studied a year at the University of Minnesota doing graduate work and came back not really knowing what I wanted to do with my life. I had been doing some vocational guidance work out at Minnesota, and I was asked, “What would you say to anybody who came to you with your problem?”
I said, “Explore your avocational interests.” So that’s what I did.
ASMP: Where did you learn photography?
Brooks: I started when I was about 12 years old. I met a young man — who was related, incidentally, to Edwin Land, the Polaroid inventor — and we set up a darkroom in my cellar. It was an interest that was maintained continually after that. And when I got interested in dance, I bought a really good camera and went on.
ASMP: How did you find out what was a really good camera?
Brooks: You talk around. I never took a course. I have given courses, but I never took one.
“I schlepped all of his monumentally heavy strobe gear”
ASMP: How did you go about getting work?
Brooks: At first, I did portraits of friends. Then I did a photograph of the lighthouse at Montauk, among the pictures I did for myself. And we were very close friends of a woman who at that time was Gjon Mili’s girlfriend. (Mili bio) Ethel said, “Let me show Gjon these pictures.” He was scathing about one of the portraits, but very encouraging about the Montauk lighthouse.
Even earlier than that, Arthur Rothstein and his wife were friends and they came to dinner when we lived on Morton St. Just as he and Diana were leaving, he said, “I’m going to have lunch with Barbara Morgan (bio) tomorrow.” I said, “Ask her if she needs an assistant.” So he did, and she did, and I became an apprentice to Barbara Morgan.
At the same time, I was working in a letterpress print shop learning to set type. I didn’t really know where I was going, but in high school and college I had been interested in journalism. I had some vague idea of combining journalism and photography, but it wasn’t a very ripe idea.
I worked in the print shop at minimum wage three days a week and I went up to Scarsdale and worked with Barbara two days a week as an apprentice. That was a fabulous experience because she was so articulate. She was a wonderful teacher and it was a great experience for me. And all the time I was photographing on the side, so gradually it happened.
After the experience with Barbara, I went to work for Mili as his assistant for something like $18 a week. We were at war and Mili’s assistant had gone off to fight, and Mili hired me as his Girl Friday. So I schlepped all of his monumentally heavy strobe gear, two enormous boxes for each light, and that was a wonderful experience too.
ASMP: My memory is he was quite a big guy, so to think of a little person …
Brooks: I was pretty sturdy. I had a body that worked for me.
ASMP: It must have looked funny.
“He turned up at different times in my life”
Brooks: Later, when I was working for Standard Oil, I put all the gear I was carrying on a scale; it came to 72 pounds. This was 4x5 equipment, and all of that. But I really was very lucky every step along the way. The time was right, and I was there to take advantage of it.
After I worked for Mili, I decided I’d had enough of that. I was itching to do my own thing, whatever that was. So I got a job photographing for three weekly newspapers in New Jersey: the Maplewood News, the Summit Herald and the South Orange Record. They were all run by one proprietor.
At one point, the owner wanted me to set up a commercial photography operation, because he figured that was a way to make some bucks. However, I wasn’t interested in that.
It was a wonderful experience, because I photographed a lot of different things for the papers. And then, I don’t know how it happened, but Art Rothstein was involved again — he turned up at different times in my life, playing interesting roles — Popular Photography did a story on me. Julie Arden wrote it and Arthur photographed me.
When it appeared, Arthur brought it to the attention of Ed Rosskam, who brought it to the attention of Roy Stryker (bio). And I had an invitation to get a portfolio together and go see Roy, which I did. [Rosskam, a photographer, writer and layout specialist, worked for Stryker at the FSA and then on the Standard Oil Project. —ed.]
ASMP: He just called you up and said, “Come on up?”
Brooks: Yes. I went up, and it was on the day Franklin Roosevelt died — what was it, April 30th?
Brooks: I was so excited by this interview that I didn’t know till I got home that Roosevelt had died. It was all around me, but I didn’t hear a thing, I was so full of myself, so full of the excitement of what was happening. Anyhow, that started a great adventure working for Stryker, traveling mostly into New England and up into New York State. Met wonderful people and had a great time.
“You have to have a very special personality”
Then that program started to peter out. I freelanced and got an agent, Hilda Monkmeyer, Monkmeyer Press Photo, and she got me some jobs. That went on for a few years, but I was really kind of conflicted. I wasn’t getting an awful lot of work, and I was sort of depressed about it, and I was thinking about whether I should be doing something else. Then I got another telephone call, and it was from Arthur, again.
He was a technical director at Look. And he asked me if I would be interested in a staff job. I never thought I’d be interested in a staff job, but at that time the freelance life was hairy.
ASMP: It’s always been, because you have to have a very special personality to deal with freelancing.
Brooks: I realized as I went on, you had to know that in August you weren’t going to get any work because everyone was on vacation.
ASMP: Right. Or maybe you’d hit a fallow period in which nothing would come in.
Brooks: Or else they wouldn’t pay you for two months. I can remember having the last couple of bucks in my wallet. One time when we lived on Morton St. in the Village, there was a restaurant-supply place on Bleaker St and in the window, there was an orange-juice presser. I had no money, but I absolutely had to have it. So I went in and bought it, and the next day a job came in. But, you know, that’s the way it was — and probably still is.
“Somebody realized I might be useful”
So, although I had mixed feelings about taking a staff job, it seemed to be the route to go at that point. But the job wasn’t really a regular staff photographer. They needed a photographer to do work for the advertising departments upstairs. The first assignment I had was to go to Washington, where there was a trade convention for food stores. Look had rented a room at the Mayflower Hotel, and there were two cutouts of a man and a woman, actor and actress. The gimmick was, you put your head into the hole and I would take a Polaroid picture. So I had to learn to operate a Polaroid camera.
They wanted me to use that room to sleep in. I put my foot down right away — on my first job — I was not going to do that. This place was going to be filled with smoke, and I said, “No, I won’t do the job if that’s the way you’re going to do it.” They agreed and I stayed someplace else.
It didn’t take very long before I got into editorial assignments after that. I guess somebody realized I might be useful.
ASMP: You were the only woman?
Brooks: I was the only woman on the staff for all the 20 years I was there. They used freelance people.
“You represented a powerful organization”
ASMP: They did pay you less than the men.
Brooks: Oh, yes.
ASMP: Did you feel like you were part of the organization, or did you always feel like the left hand?
Brooks: There was always a little something. I think it had to do in part with the nature of the assignments. Although I enjoyed everything, the other people used to hate “All-American Cities” and “What is a Teacher?” But I had a marvelous time; I loved all of it. The people involved were interesting people, and it was always so wonderful to be able to go out as Miss Look. I think I got a little bit of a head about that. You were not yourself at all, nobody would know your name, but you represented a powerful organization and it had some meaning.
ASMP: Did you keep some of your own negatives?
Brooks: Part of my problem as a photographer is I own very little. I own the material that I shot as a freelancer, but all the stuff I did for Standard Oil is now at the University of Louisville archives.
ASMP: You can’t get hold of it?
Brooks: I can get prints. I can pay for prints.
“That was a battle with those people”
ASMP: But you can’t borrow the negatives?
Brooks: No. I can pay for prints. I’ve been buying them directly from the archives when I want them. All of the Look work is now in the Library of Congress. At one point, when the files were being cleared out at Look, the photographers were offered negatives and contacts, mostly of outtakes. I accepted the offer, so they were shipped up here — and they sat and sat here. I sold a few over time, but I never really did anything very much with them.
I finally decided there was just no sense in holding onto them; they should be married to the rest of the Look material which Gardner Cowles gave to the Library of Congress. I made an offer and they accepted it. So I shipped everything I had down there within the last six months. I have access to that if I want it, but it’s cumbersome and I haven’t used that access.
So, when you consider all the years I was working, I don’t have very much. After Look folded, I did a fair amount of work in the educational A/V slide film field. I don’t even have all of that, because they kept the selects and I kept the rejects.
That was a battle with those people: I could not get them to return the material to me; it was simply impossible. Again, I was able to borrow, if I wanted some prints. (That was all color, as a matter of fact.) God knows what has happened to it since they folded. They went down and out when all the school-budget cutbacks happened.
Then I went back to freelance work. I did illustrations for an exercise book that was done by Manya Kahn; that kept me busy for a while. And I did a bunch of stuff, none of it very sensational; it all sort of just petered out. Also, one of my knees gave out, so it became difficult to think about carrying equipment. I lucked out financially and made an investment that paid off, so it wasn’t absolutely necessary for me to get out and beat the bushes. I just sort-of let it all slither away.
“I had to rewash several hundred negatives when I got home”
Also in the freelance period, I went first to Sibiu, Romania, and then to Tbilisi, Georgia, with a Photography USA show that traveled through the Iron Curtain countries. I made two trips behind the Iron Curtain, both for the State Department. The show was exhibited in all the Iron Curtain countries — I believe there were seven of them.
In Sibiu, in February 1975, I ran a darkroom for about a month. There was a huge sheet of red plastic that made it possible for visitors to see what was going on inside.
Then they set up a studio arrangement with Polaroid; we were supposed to select people from among the thousands who came through every day. I say “we” because there was a different photographer in each of the cities — Kiev, Alma-Ata, Moscow (David Attie did that one) — and I had Tbilisi. The show was in Tbilisi from December ’76 to January ’77. I chose the sitters from the crowd in front of the open studio. I used Polaroid positive-negative film, gave the sitters the prints and retained the negatives. There have been several shows of the portraits I made from those negatives.
I had to rewash all of the several hundred negatives when I got home, because the water supply in Tbilisi was not very reliable. It would just shut down several times a day. Temperature was a pipe-dream.
I tried to get a book out of it. We did a layout, but it hit just about the time that the Cold War really got active, and Soviet was out. So I filed it away and forgot about it.
“You should double the price each time.”
About a year and a half ago, I had a telephone call. A man introduced himself as George Rinhart. I had never heard of him. He said he was a collector and he wanted to see my work. Now, you’ve got to understand, I have never sold very many photographs. I have sold, over the years, an occasional on from a little show here and there; I would get maybe $100 for a photograph out of an art show here at the art center which Julie [Arden] and I founded. But I never thought of my work as being very salable; I never considered “art photography” as being my metier.
I said that he could come, and he arrived with an assistant. He’s almost blind; he wears eyeglasses like the proverbial milk-bottle bottoms. He went through the material so fast, and he put aside what he thought he was interested in. It included Standard Oil material, early freelance; it included a lot of stuff.
I did a story in Cleveland on what life was like for blacks in 1943; it ran in Our World magazine. I got the job through Stryker’s office. Now, this was before there were any black photographers; Moneta Sweet was just beginning to come up a bit. So they hired some of us whites to do work for the magazines. Ebony was just coming up at that time. I did a story which ran to, I don’t know how many pages, and one of those pictures was in U.S. Camera Annual.
Rinhart found that and was interested in the set. I thought I had the negatives, because there was an entry in my log book with a number. But when I went to look for the negatives, there were none. I was very conflicted, because he wanted the whole set and I only had one print. He was picking out an awful lot of pictures, and he wanted them. I had to make a decision: Was I going to sell him the set or not? I think now it was a foolish thing to do, but I did it. I sold him not only that set, but an awful lot of pictures.
ASMP: Did he pay you a decent price?
Brooks: He quoted a price, and I asked him if he could go any higher. He went 20 percent higher, which was more money than I had seen for quite a while. And it was like, what am I going to do with this stuff? Well, the University of Missouri has a Women in Journalism project, and they’re interested in getting my material. So I was saying to myself, “Should I just wait until I die and then all of this will go into an archive someplace? Why not.”
So I sold him that set and a whole bunch of other stuff. Too much, but these things you learn later. He marched off with a lot of pictures, for what was a fair price to me.
Then, some time later, I had another call; it was Keith DeLellis. And what was he interested in? That same set from Our World, for the same reason: He had seen it in the U.S. Camera Annual. I didn’t have it to show him. But he came over anyhow and he bought some pictures.
A young friend of mine, when I raised the subject of price, said, “You should double the price each time.” So I did that. I sold fewer, but I doubled the price.
“However messy or disorganized it is, it’s there.”
ASMP: Thinking about your estate, what are you going to do with the pictures? The Center for Creative Photography in Tucson has the most wonderful archives. The University of Maryland has an archive in Baltimore.
Brooks: One reason why I sent the Look material down to the Library of Congress is, at least it’s out of the house; nobody has to worry about it anymore. But it’s very hard to face your own demise. And also, the emptiness of losing your children … I go into the studio and there’s a lot of stuff there, but my work is there. There’s a kind of comfort; however messy or disorganized it is, it’s there.
We spoke to a lawyer, and he said, “Throw away anything that’s really no good; get rid of it. Mark stuff that you think is good, and prepare it in a way that the transfer is easy.” But spending your time doing that is another story.
ASMP: Given the option, would you rather freelance or be on staff?
Brooks: If I had it to do again, I would have quit at Look after 10 years and gone back to freelancing. That would have been good timing, because by the time Look folded, I was already 53 and there was no place for me to go. And looking back on it, it would have given me that much more experience at a time when I was really at my peak.
But they were so wonderful at Look. It was fabulous, and it was very rewarding. It kept on being that even though, from a point of work, I had the better part of it during the first 10 years. There were interesting assignments after that. I just loved what I did, so it was always interesting.